Major League Soccer

LAFC is surging as the hottest team in MLS. Will it carry the team to another title?

LAFC is surging as the hottest team in MLS. Will it carry the team to another title?

LAFC midfielder Mateusz Bogusz (19) celebrates with teammates, from left, Aaron Long, Timothy Tillman and Sergi Palencia after scoring in a win over Minnesota on May 29. After a sluggish start to the season, LAFC is the hottest team in MLS. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

Eleven games into this MLS season, LAFC had lost as many games as it had won and had scored as many goals as it had given up. The numbers were as mediocre as the team’s play — and mediocre wasn’t going to cut it for a franchise seeking a third straight trip to the MLS Cup final.

But those numbers didn’t add up for coach Steve Cherundolo, who thought the record didn’t reflect his team’s performance.

“I can create a statistic that puts me in a fantastic light. Any player can,” he said. “I can find one that puts them in a horrible light. So I try not to draw conclusions from that.

“What is fair to say is the team is playing better.”

With five straight wins — all shutouts — LAFC is playing better than any team in MLS as it returns from a two-week break Saturday in Orlando, Fla., the first game of a five-day road trip that also will take it to Austin next week.

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Defender Aaron Long said the team took its early struggles in stride, knowing they wouldn’t last.

“We were confident in our abilities,” he said. “Every team, throughout the season, goes through ups and downs right? We were in a little bit of a down moment, we had things that weren’t falling our way.

“Then we kind of got ourselves out of that and got over the hump. Now we feel like we’re on a roll.”

Well, they were on a roll, anyway. Because of the vagaries of the MLS schedule, LAFC’s most recent game was June 1. Long said most of the players used the break to heal and rest — he went to San Diego with his family for three days. But now they’re eager to get back to business.

“We feel like there’s a reset button,” he said. “We want to start the next stretch of the season as good as we can. It was good to go on the break on a high like that.

“The mood is good and we’re champing at the bit to get back out there.”

LAFC midfielder Ilie Sánchez, left, heads the ball in front of FC Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira during an LAFC win on June 1. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Cherundolo said LAFC’s uneven start was magnified by the team’s success in winning two Western Conference championships, a Supporters’ Shield and an MLS Cup in the last two seasons.

“It’s L.A. and it’s OK,” he said. “We understand our role and our reputation and we feel perfectly comfortable with high expectations.”

Part of the reason they weren’t meeting those expectations was a defense that started May by giving up three goals in a 3-1 loss to last-place San José, the team with the worst goal differential in MLS. That performance left goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who started the last two World Cup finals for France, ranked as the worst player at his position in MLS.

But Lloris and the team haven’t given up a goal since, the five consecutive shutouts and 480 scoreless minutes both setting club records. Add in 125 consecutive scoreless minutes in two U.S. Open Cups wins and LAFC hasn’t conceded a goal in 575 minutes in all competition and hasn’t trailed in its last seven games.

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“For defenders, it’s kind of what we want to do,” center back Jesús Murillo, speaking in Spanish, said of the scoreless streak. “The beginning of the season was difficult and we had to make some adjustments, we had to get better. Now we’ve done that.”

That surge has carried the team to second in the conference and fourth in the Supporters’ Shield standings with half a season to play.

“There’s definitely a better sense of team defending,” Long said of LAFC, which added two defenders in addition to Lloris since last season, resulting in a period of adjustment at the start of the schedule. “I don’t think it’s the back four or the back six in particular, but the group as a whole. There’s been a lot of stability, a lot of clarity in what we’re trying to do.”

That’s important because for all the attention the team has gotten for its offense — an LAFC player has won the MLS Golden Boot three times since 2019 — the team has won with defense, ranking in the top five in fewest goals given up in each of its three best seasons.

LAFC midfielder Mateusz Bogusz celebrates after scoring against Minnesota on May 29. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

But here’s the scary thing for opponents: LAFC (9-4-3) is almost certain to get better this summer with the addition of Olivier Giroud, the French national team’s all-time leading scorer. Giroud, who tied for third in Italy’s Serie A with 15 goals for AC Milan this season, signed a designated-player contract with LAFC last month and will join the team after his duties with France in the European Championships are over.

He’ll likely make his LAFC debut in the Leagues Cup in August, joining an attack led by Denis Bouanga, the reigning MLS scoring champion who has scored four times in his last five games.

Good fortune, it would seem, is starting to snowball for LAFC. Cherundolo, nonetheless, still says what matters most is the next game, not the last one.

“It’s a perspective thing,” he said. “You can think in terms of streaks or you can think game to game or even half to half. So the streak is just one game.

“This is the space we’re in mentally right now and not thinking in streaks.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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